What to Do When Your Adult Child Lies to You

Lifting the pressure to liberate the truth.

Posted Feb 15, 2019

Adult children who show patterns of lying are likely deceptive because they want to hide their struggles. The sad truth is that they may believe that lying is the way to feel good about themselves. But a consistent pattern of lies usually puts them on the "Bottle it Up and Explode or Implode Later Plan." Not a good plan to be on, as we all know! 

By "struggling adult children," I am referring to those who demonstrate:

  • Financial lack of responsibility or recklessness
  • Not being able to consistently hold a job
  • Doing poorly in college
  • Substance use related problems
  • Destructive relationships
  • Emotional manipulation toward parents and unfairly blaming them for their struggles.

I have found from years of coaching parents in the U.S. and around the world that they share a common need. This is to learn to effectively respond to lies from their adult children. There is no one reason why an adult child lies. But through sorting out the history in the coaching process, some of the common reasons that emerge are: 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Due to their executive functioning and processing challenges, people with ADHD can be prone to problematic processing and communication. This often leaves them having questionable authenticity in the eyes of others, and at times, even in how they view themselves.

Addictions: When in the midst of active addictions, young adults may try to hide their alcohol or substance use. Lies about where they are going or where they've been are common in these circumstances. Manipulations of blaming others for why they use fall into the realm of deception often occur as well. 

Anxiety and Depression: Young adults battling anxiety and depression struggle to calm themselves and problem solve (arguably the most crucial skills anyone needs to be successful). Shutting down and avoiding challenges is often related to lies about the status of current and future obligations, deadlines, college enrollment or attendance, or holding jobs.

Bipolar Disorder: When in an active manic phase of bipolar disorder, young adults may have grandiose plans for their future and lack contact with reality. In seeking their impulsive yearnings, they may deceive others and try to inflict guilt, shame, or anger to cover up lies.  

Borderline Personality DisorderYoung adults with borderline personality disorder have huge trust issues and drama-laden, volatile relationships with others. This leads to significant distortions of the truth at times. 

Other issues: Other personality disorders (e.g., narcissism) or general emotional immaturity can trigger lying behaviors. 

Whether your adult child struggles with one, or a few of the above issues, there are some crucial "don'ts and dos" to keep in mind to help them tell the truth when they struggle:

The Don'ts

  • Don't pressure of micromanage.
  • Don't speak in shaming, sarcastic, reactive, or judgemental ways. 
  • Don't negatively compare your struggling adult child to siblings or other peers.
  • Don't infuse guilt, telling all you've done for them.
  • Don't irrationally blame yourself for his struggles.

The Do's

  • Do be calm yet firm in expressing your views of the truth.
  • Do try saying, "That's how you see it, I see it differently," when you hear lies.
  • Do empathize about how isolated and alone your adult child likely feels when lying.
  • Do acknowledge and reinforce when he or she is truthful.
  • Do remind yourself that this is not about you. Your adult child feels stuck.
  • Do find ways to rebuild your relationship, which will likely diminish the lie.

In Conclusion

It is a serious concern when adult children frequently lie to themselves and within their relationships. Gaining a solid understanding of why your adult child lies is crucial to learning how to effectively respond. Managing your understandable frustrations and other negative emotions (and behaviors) will go a long way in helping your adult child be more truthful.